Revisited Myth # 40: Most men wore wigs in colonial America.

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Most men did not wear wigs. Even if they had wanted to, it was a very expensive fashion accessory! Not all those who could afford to wear a wig did so (George Washington, for example). Many preferred to arrange and powder their own hair.

But the myth lives on. In fact, I came across it in a 5th-grade history textbook that I was asked to review for the Virginia Department of Education where it said most men wore wigs. It was one of five myths–and many, many other errors–that I found in the book (which was immediately pulled from classrooms). No wonder these myths refuse to die! 

So how many men wore wigs? Betty Myers, supervisor of Colonial Williamsburg’s Wigmaker’s Shop wh has studied the craft of wig-making for over thirty-five years, was more precise. “We estimate that only about 5% of the population [in colonial Virginia] wore wigs. Roughly 2% gentry and 3% middling sort. The middling sort were tradesmen and professionals such as lawyers, doctors, merchants, ship captains, and teachers. . . . Females also wore wigs, however, they were from the gentry class, thus referred to as ladies. The majority of the population was just surviving. Putting food on the table was their priority, not fashion.” 

And outside colonial Virginia? Major cities like Boston and Philadelphia would probably have had a slightly higher percentage of men wearing wigs than towns, if we assume that cities had a higher concentration of wealthy and middling sort living in them. But as Englishmen in English colonies, they were all taking fashion cues from London. 

cover_featureContrary to expectation, not all wig-wearers were white. Most runaway slave advertisements describe the clothing that the slave was wearing, and a handful of those mention wigs. (for example, Virginia Gazette Nov. 1772 “. . . a very likely young Virginia born Negro Man named DAVID, of a yellowish Complexion, and about five Feet five Inches high . . . Though his Hair is of the Negro Kind, he keeps it very high and well-combed; but, as he wants to be free, I imagine he will cut it off, and get a Wig to alter and disguise himself . . .”) And house slaves belonging to a royal governor or wealthy man may well have worn wigs. 

3 Responses to Revisited Myth # 40: Most men wore wigs in colonial America.

  1. fred johnson says:

    hello history myth debunker

    I found you website while researching sugar cones (loaf) and blue paper I like it, great site.

    I searched your site for betty lamp, but found nothing?

    1) is the name betty lamp a bastardization of better lamp?

    2) also how is a betty lamp used?

    instructions I have say to wrap a piece of cotton or linen rag to make a wick fill with fat, ( I used lard ) but I cant seem to keep the lamp going for more than a few minutes? is that normal?

    other instructions say to make the wick hang over the side this way the fat is drawn over the edge on the wick to burn that is why many betty lamps have a second tray to catch the drippings same problem, wick burns up in a few minutes and we cant keep it going

    any suggestions would information would be great

    Fred

    Date: Sun, 1 Mar 2015 17:56:54 +0000 To: mrgiant@hotmail.com

  2. Good job de-myth bunking! It’s easy to let yourself fall into the trap of believing generalities if you don’t bother to check the facts. Even I was unaware of how rare wig-wearing was. Was this the same case in Continental Europe?

    • Mary Miley says:

      Thanks, Stephanie.
      I really haven’t a clue about wigs and Europe. A semi-educated guess (How’s that for waffling?) would be that the rate was probably about the same, considering how many peasants there were and how small their middle classes were in the 17th and 18th centuries. Maybe someone more knowledgable in European social history could weigh in?

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